When Lynn Fahrmeier got married in the 1990s, he was looking for ways to grow his diversified family farm near Wellington, Missouri, to help support his growing household. He needed to generate income on the farm so he and his wife, Donna, would not have to get an off-farm job.
His wife suggested they get some sheep.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to shear any sheep,’” Fahrmeier says. “She said, ‘I’ve read about this breed with hair and you don’t have to shear any sheep.’”
That breed was Katahdin sheep, and the Fahrmeiers started raising them as meat sheep.
“It just took off from there,” he says.
Fahrmeier and his family still raise the sheep, in addition to corn, soybeans and wheat, as well as custom grazing some cattle. They raise seedstock sheep as well as marketing some of their lambs. Fahrmeier has been involved in several state and national sheep groups, and serves on the executive board for the American Sheep Industry Association. He says he has seen several young people getting into raising sheep as a way to get into agriculture or diversify without as much capital input as some other ag sectors.
“I see it a lot,” Fahrmeier says. “When done right, sheep can be very profitable on a per-acre basis.”
Other producers and university Extension livestock specialists say they see this trend as well. Even if national sheep numbers have gradually declined in the recent decades, the appeal of a less capital-intensive way to grow or get started remains.
Kevin Minish raises sheep near Holts Summit, Missouri.
“The last few years, I’ve seen more and more small flock producers getting into it,” says Minish, president of the Missouri Sheep Producers. “It’s a little less money getting started.”
University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Jim Humphrey, based in Andrew County, says the hair breeds of sheep grown for meat have risen in popularity in his area.
“The last 10 to 20 years in our area, people with the hair-type sheep, that business has really grown tremendously in our area,” he says.
Iowa State University animal science professor Ann Kolthoff says her state sees a lot of small sheep producers.
“While Iowa doesn’t have a ton of numbers, we’re still in the top 10 in terms of number of sheep producers,” she says.
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Kolthoff says Iowa’s sheep numbers have held steady in recent years or slightly increased. She says some young farmers see it as a good opportunity.
“From an infrastructure standpoint and a capital standpoint, it’s a lot easier to get into the sheep industry,” she says. “For those young people that are looking to get into agriculture, this is one way to get in or to diversify.”
Kolthoff says sheep don’t require as much space, and several ewes can graze on the same amount of pasture that supports a cow-calf pair.
The USDA reported Jan. 1, 2023, national sheep inventory at 5.02 million head, down 1% from the year before. Breeding sheep inventory was 3.67 million head, also down 1% from the year before.
Looking at the state numbers, Iowa had 162,000 head of sheep, up from 160,000 the year before. Missouri had 99,000 total sheep, up from 97,000 in 2022. Illinois had 53,000 head of sheep, the same as the year before.
Fahrmeier says there are some things to consider when raising sheep, such as marketing. Traditionally, he says lambs have been sold at around 120 to 140 pounds and finished in feedlots, with the meat sold in grocery stores, which prefer larger-size lamb chops and other cuts. But many ethnic groups and immigrants from certain parts of the world consume a lot of lamb, and they prefer having the lamb harvested much smaller, at around 60 pounds. Fahrmeier says this can impact how producers want to run their operation, and what size breeding stock they want.
“They need to figure out what their market is, what their market wants, and how to raise a lamb that meets the needs of the market,” he says. “The market is driving the changes that I’m seeing. Over the last 20, definitely the last 10 years, we’ve seen a real bipolar type of market for lambs.”
Fahrmeier says this non-traditional market is becoming more and more of a factor for sheep producers in the Midwest and Eastern U.S.
“They’re buying a lot of lambs at 60 pounds, which is basically when we wean them,” he says.
Fahrmeier says if a person draws a line from Duluth, Minnesota, to El Paso, “a high majority, probably 75%, of the lambs raised east of the line are going into this non-traditional market, this light lamb market.”
On the flip side, a lot of the sheep in the mountainous Western U.S. are still sold for traditional markets, he says. He adds some producers do direct-to-consumer marketing as another option, although it does require more time to market their animals and run that part of the business.
Fahrmeier says his operation has “pivoted a couple of times,” between the two types of lamb marketing, but the overall emphasis on selling seedstock sheep has been the continuous theme, with a focus on the genetics.
When it comes to successfully managing a sheep operation, Humphrey says there are a few factors to consider, such as sickness and predators.
“There’s a lot of challenges with the parasites on sheep,” he says. “… The other big thing for us is predator control. Here in the Midwest, foxes, coyotes and obviously bobcats can be a predator for those lambs.”
Fahrmeier says guard dogs can help watch sheep, and having good fences helps keep sheep in and predators out.
Humphrey says sheep producers in his northwest Missouri region and nearby southwest Iowa have good marketing options, with the ability to sell at Maryville, Missouri, or Clarinda, Iowa.
“We’ve got two pretty good sheep and goat markets pretty close,” he says.